Research Reveals Outdoor Industry's Safety Practices and Concerns

According to the results of a recent survey of outdoor adventure program directors and risk managers, more outdoor education and adventure-based recreation programs are concerned about transportation and driving issues than any other risk management-related issue. The survey results — in the form of a fifteen-page research finding titled “Rocky Terrain: A Look at the Risks in the Outdoor Adventure Industry” — are the outcome of a study conducted by Outward Bound USA and its insurer, The Saint Paul Companies.

Background

In May of last year (2001), Outward Bound and St. Paul mailed 1,265 ‘Risk Management Surveys’ to outdoor education and adventure-based recreation programs across the United States. Companies and organizations with one or more programs in the outdoor wilderness adventure industry were targeted for inclusion in the study.

Survey Distribution

  • 15% youth camps
  • 15% outdoor education programs
  • 15% college and university outdoor programs
  • 14% wilderness outfitters
  • 7% wilderness therapy programs
  • 6% commercial vendors, insurance and legal professionals, ropes course builders, and foundations
  • 4% other school programs (e.g., prep schools, academies, etc.)
  • 4% local, city, state, and federal agencies
  • 3% industry membership and trade association
  • 13% unspecified group of adventure programming entities

Two hundred and ninety-seven (297) surveys were returned (approximately 25 percent). The survey was used to examine the adventure programming industry’s safety concerns, existing safety management systems within survey respondents’ programs, accident histories, and programmatic priorities for expanding safety initiatives and resources.

Top Concerns

Topping the list of adventure program safety concerns: Perils of the open road. Transportation and driving issues were listed as the number one safety concern for programs, but interestingly, only 48 percent of survey respondents reported utilizing driver training and testing to mitigate transportation risks in their operations.

Last month, the nation’s top motor vehicle safety executive, Jeffrey Runge, M.D., head of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reissued a cautionary warning to users of fifteen-passenger vans because of an increased rollover risk under certain conditions. Many outdoor adventure programs use fifteen-passenger vans to transport their students and clients to and from wilderness and programming areas. (See article elsewhere in this issue for an update.)

Other top areas of concern for adventure program risk managers, according to the research findings, include environmental hazards, participant behavior, program activity, staff skills, and medical management in the field.

When asked what kinds of additional or expanded resources would benefit survey respondents risk management efforts, the most frequently cited response was ‘instructor judgment training’, ranking above fourteen other categories. As qualified staff become harder to find, and those available are spread increasingly thin across a growing number of organizations, adventure programs may find it easy to rely on policies and procedures to offset limited instructor experience. Yet, most veteran programs recognize that instructor judgment is an essential tool in managing changing circumstances, incomplete information, and conditions of uncertainty, all of which are unavoidable in any outdoor adventure operation.

When asked which benefits would encourage their organization to expand its risk management protocols, 58 percent of survey respondents indicated increased staff skills, 57 percent said increased program quality, 55 percent indicated reduced liability, and 49 percent said increased legal protection. Not surprising, since the study was conducted prior to the events of September 11, only 42 percent of respondents indicated that reducing insurance rates would be a motivating factor in expanding upon or strengthening their program’s risk management plans and policies.

Conclusions

As a result of their research, Outward Bound USA and The St. Paul Companies concluded:

  1. Outdoor adventure programs need greater alignment between safety concerns and safety management programs.
  2. Outdoor adventure programs have a clear need for better training resources and risk assessment tools.
  3. The outdoor adventure industry, as well as its customers and evaluators, need a clear and consistent way to access risk and safety management systems.
  4. The industry at large needs to embrace a culture of safety.

Implication for Camps

Camps affiliated with ACA, and especially those who have earned ACA accreditation, recognize many of the strengths of the process that addresses these concerns — verification of staff skills, driver training requirements, comprehensive risk management plans, etc. Because accreditation is a widely-held expectation in the camp industry, camps may be tempted to rest on their laurels — basking in the glow of accreditation and the policies and practices that passed muster with ACA Visitors.

However, it is far more critical to see that staff are properly and fully trained and sensitized to judgment issues. Camps must have supervision plans in place that assure camp protocols are followed and that a culture of safety is evident even to the casual observer. Once an accident occurs, it is too late to lament lack of in-service training or follow up with staff who are not implementing camp policies. It is critical to assure that procedures prepared for the day of the ACA visit are being implemented every day of every week of every year.

Additional Perspective on the Report

Although the majority of survey responses (95 percent) came from the United States, there were some from Canada (3 percent) and a few from abroad (2 percent). Half of participating organizations classified themselves as not-for-profit.

The average age of participating organizations was nineteen years, although the range was quite wide, from one-half year to 125 years. Respondents reported on average 34 full- and part-time program staff and management, and thirteen support personnel. Program activity locations varied, with 60 percent or more of the programs conducted in one or more of the following locations: mountains, rivers and lakes, forests and plains, and rocks and cliffs. Fourteen percent of respondents selected only one program location while most selected four locations.

Programs were conducted throughout the year, with winter being the least active (on average only 17 percent of programs were conducted in winter), while spring (24 percent) and fall (26 percent) fell in the middle, and one-third of the programs were conducted in summer (33 percent). Respondents reported that 70 percent or more of their activities were hiking, camping, or backpacking.

 

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